I get a fair number of requests from family to help them plan their trips, more so now that my wedding is coming up. Experience has taught me that the way I research and book travel is very different from how I need to approach it with family members. This post isn’t so much a list of complaints as it is a list of what I’ve found works and doesn’t — and your family may be different. If any of you operate as the family travel agent, you might find these tips helpful.
Simplicity Is Key
I like looking at dozens of options and whittling them down. When sharing these options with family, I usually have to whittle it down drastically before presenting them and have to consider different filters. For example, I prefer late departures that allow me to work all day even if it means dragging myself to a hotel at midnight upon arrival. That has never passed muster with my family.
I don’t pay attention to baggage fees or seat selection since my elite status helps me out, but my family wants the simplicity of Southwest Airlines even if the all-in price on another carrier is cheaper. I might suggest two connections instead of one if it means saving $100, but they aren’t fond of that, either. They want to get the ordeal over with as soon as possible.
What often happens is that I present only one possible itinerary, maybe two. I don’t discuss other options if they want to save money or depart at a different time. Giving them alternatives up front is a mistake. It confuses them. I just wait for the complaints to roll in and then I adjust as necessary. I’ve found that they usually can’t decide between saving $60 and making an extra connection until I’ve made that decision for them.
Get a Budget
I don’t mind paying a little more in some cases when I know I’m going to be able to pad my loyalty account. If I was looking to pay $100, but it’s $110 to stay at Hyatt, I see that as better than paying $90 to stay at Holiday Inn Express. Hyatt offers me a room upgrade and a better breakfast while getting me closer to Diamond status. On a recent Hyatt stay, the waived parking, Internet, and breakfast charges were actually greater than the room rate.
These long-term strategies don’t work with family, some of whom have never joined a loyalty program. Go back to simplicity. The a la carte price is the one they’re going to see and the one they’ll take issue with. So since they don’t care about loyalty, do care about the cost of parking, and are probably fine with free doughnuts and coffee in the morning, I focus on an entirely different set of hotels when I’m looking at their options.
I also pay closer attention to package deals. I don’t normally book packages because hotels booked through third parties are technically ineligible to earn elite status and points. But if these don’t matter, they are a good way to save about 10-30%.
Start Looking Early
This is by far the most difficult part of the job. Family members will come to me two weeks out and complain about how expensive everything is. That’s the nature of the beast when you’ve passed every advanced purchase window and are left will full-price fares. I don’t necessarily believe in booking three or four months before travel, but I do believe in looking far in advance. If you start looking early, you can get a sense of what’s fair and what isn’t and how prices vary with time.
You can also snag whatever discount inventory is available. For example, some routes I’ve been looking at for family have a published fare $200 less than what’s currently available. Although there is lots of availability on the mainline routes to/from Seattle, the issue is that the regional flights to/from their home city are nearly full. A similar strategy is useful for award flights. I found award space six months ago for some family members and could have booked it at no risk using miles from my account (since I can redeposit miles for free). Unfortunately they didn’t want to pull the trigger.
And this is the biggest risk. There have been times when I spend an hour looking for flights or hotels, try to condense my results to something understandable, and then don’t hear back for three weeks. By that point some festival has sold out all the hotels in the city and the discount fares are no longer available. One international fare I was looking at this spring had an eight-week advance purchase restriction — and there were only 48 hours left to book before it jumped by $400.
Just Pull the Trigger
Sometimes I just book the whole thing for them — and maybe I don’t tell them that. There are many ways to get refundable hotel rates at the same prices as prepaid rates (e.g., AAA or Costco discounts). Most car rentals are refundable. Airfare can be refunded within 24 hours. As a last ditch move I’ll even draw upon my own miles and points to book award stays and flights that I can cancel or change later. At some point something needs to be done, and I know its not going to happen until it’s too late. So I take matters into my own hands. (If they book their own arrangements later, I cancel the backups.)
Other times I persuade them to book early, essentially using the same argument as above but keeping it more in the open. In addition to using phrases like “It’s refundable,” and “You can always change your mind,” I remind them that one benefit of booking early is that schedule changes are more likely. They give the customer a lot of leeway with the airline, and you can use these to your benefit by requesting a new itinerary that was originally more expensive. Depending on how far in advance this happens, you can sometimes just cancel and rebook if you prefer a different date or fares have gone down.
Sometimes I have to say: “Book now. I know it’s expensive, but I think it will only get worse.” Prices can go down, but I’m not a miracle worker. That’s ultimately my job, to be the bearer of bad news. I can do all kinds of crazy stuff with my own travel schedule, but I don’t have those freedoms when working with others. I do the best I can, I try to reassure them of that, and hopefully that’s enough to ensure my family gets to their destination with smiles on their faces.